EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks his best bets for the weekend’s action in his EFL Weekend Preview.
Reading to win
Reading v Queens Park Rangers
Reading are out of automatic promotion contention after a 2-1 loss at Birmingham on Wednesday and, with Bournemouth and Middlesbrough winning in midweek, the rest of their season is all about holding onto a place in the top six.
The Royals should achieve that feat, though: Ovie Ejaria came off the bench in midweek and the energetic, skilful playmaker makes a big difference to them.
Michael Olise carried the creative burden at St Andrews last time out and, as talented as the teenager is from the right, Ejaria can give opponents something different to think about from the left, meaning opponents cannot merely stop them by doubling up on one player.
Veljko Paunovic has, in recent games, opted for a diamond system with the assured Tom McIntyre at the base, flanked by athletes Alfa Semedo and Josh Laurent with Olise at the tip.
With Ejaria back as well as Andy Rinomhota, we could see a return to the 4-2-2-2 setup that worked a treat earlier in the campaign, while George Pușcaș could come in up top, possibly to give star striker Lucas João a rest.
João picked up an injury in the first half on Wednesday and, without a full-strength midfield, Reading can be toothless when the Portuguese front-man is not at his best.
Yakou Meite looked sharp in B9 though and could form a good partnership with Puscas, who has that ability to provide the finishing touches to attacking moves with his movement, skill and quality.
Two or three alterations should transform Reading sufficiently for victory over QPR, even if Mark Warburton’s side managed to overturn a two-goal deficit to beat Millwall 3-2 last time out.
I hate to say it but Moore was no where near good enough tonight, nor was João, both very poor. Not many players in fairness come away with much credit tonight. Got to get back to Laurent & Rinoin midfield on Saturday and Ejaria back in too for me #readingfc
— Tom Maynard (@ttmaynard) March 17, 2021
Reading were below-par in midweek, there’s no escaping that. But at the same time I expect Veljko Paunovic to make the necessary changes to get them back on track.”Gabriel Sutton
Watford v Birmingham City
Birmingham got Lee Bowyer’s reign as manager off to a flyer with a 2-1 victory over Reading on Wednesday.
Blues started that game at an incredibly high intensity with a superbly co-ordinated pressing game as Lukas Jutkiewicz, who had struggled under Aitor Karanka, repeated his trademark back-post header from Jérémie Bela’s excellent cross.
The crucial differences to games under Karanka were that, firstly, the Midlanders kept their shape and structure even when the intensity dropped late in the first half and early in the second, which meant their high-flying opponents did not carve them open.
Secondly, Bowyer’s substitutions gave Birmingham a lift as Jonathan Leko brought fresh pace from the left and Ivan Šunjić, tenacity from midfield.
This week has given the B9 outfit renewed hope of beating the drop, especially after relegation rivals Rotherham lost 4-1 to Watford – but then that very game shows how big a challenge awaits Birmingham on Saturday.
While Blues have been transformed by going to 4-4-2, the Hornets have massively improved by doing the exact opposite.
The Hertfordshire outfit have looked far more fluid since Xisco Muñoz switch to 4-3-3, a system that means Ismaila Sarr and Ken Sema – so often the ones providing the width earlier in the campaign – can drift infield to support the main striker, normally João Pedro.
Vladimir Ivic and Muñoz might have initially been reluctant to ask Pedro to lead the line due to his lack of experience, but he has the skill, selflessness and physique to be a focal point in a possession-based system.
The 4-3-3 also suits the likes of Philip Zinckernagel, who has shown quick feet and creativity since moving into a central role, while Will Hughes provides excellent control as full-backs Kiko Femenia and Adam Masina hold the width.
Birmingham look much-improved under Bowyer and might be able to keep their expensively-assembled hosts at bay for 45 minutes, but if they do drop their line of engagement in the second half, Watford have the quality to take advantage.
"Man for man we were hungrier, we were the better side. Our work rate was exceptional."
🙌 Lee Bowyer off to the perfect start as Blues Boss.
— Birmingham City FC (@BCFC) March 17, 2021
I think rejuvenated Birmingham will keep Watford at bay with a committed, workmanlike first half display, but there is a gulf in class between these two sides that may show when the visitors tire after the interval.Gabriel Sutton
Sean Raggett to score first
Portsmouth v Ipswich Town
Danny Cowley, set to be confirmed as Portsmouth’s new manager, would be an excellent appointment.
Michael Eisner and the board had to strike a balance of respecting the wishes of supporters to move away from the long ball game employed under Kenny Jackett, without asking for a complete sea-change in philosophy going into the run-in, with a Play-Off spot still up for grabs.
The Cowley brothers are the sensible move in that respect because, when they first took over at Lincoln, they were not afraid to adapt to the personnel they had available.
Equally, as their tenure went on, they evolved the style, gravitated initially to floor-based counter-attacking and ended up bringing in some dainty, technical players which goes against the reputation that precedes them.
Danny and Nicky are not long ball merchants by design, they merely tailor individual match strategies based on what they have available and how to pounce on weaknesses of the opponents.
Pragmatic, flexible and meticulous in their preparation, the managerial duo have met or exceeded expectation every season in each job they have had for 13 years and have huge potential, as Sean Raggett will testify.
Raggett scored the winner at Burnley that made Lincoln the first non-league club in over a century to reach the FA Cup Quarter-Finals and the centre-back will be re-united with the Cowley brothers at Fratton Park.
The timing is fortunate, as Raggett has endured a drop in individual form: in recent defeats to Sunderland and Blackpool, the corresponding left-back has been caught too high up the pitch, leaving the no-nonsense centre-back in uncomfortable territory.
Some would argue the 27-year-old does not have the pace to hold a high-line, but the most pertinent issue is that he cannot hold it in a setup that is not compact.
The Cowley brothers will drill this defence into shape which will make a big difference to the performances Pompey get out of Raggett, who could also be a key goal threat at the other end.
The former Norwich man has had 40 efforts at goal this season, of which 31 were headed attempts – on both counts, he has recorded 15 more than any other centre-back in League One.
Ellis Harrison is out for the rest of the season and fellow striker John Marquis is touch-and-go, having missed the midweek loss at Peterborough, so this game for Portsmouth could be all about set pieces and Raggett will be the primary target from corners and free-kicks.
Expecting Danny Cowley appointment as #Pompey manager to be confirmed tomorrow. He’s held extensive talks with club’s owners across the day. Understand deal is only until the end of the season. Element of risk for Cowley brothers, but chance too good to turn down.
— Chris Wise (@chriswisey) March 17, 2021
Sean Raggett will be re-united with his former manager this weekend and I’m expecting a big performance from the centre-back, at both ends.Gabriel Sutton
Chuks Aneke to score anytime
AFC Wimbledon v Charlton Athletic
Charlton saw Bowyer leave for Birmingham this week, but the head coach’s exit is not the huge loss it would have been 12 months ago.
Bowyer did an outstanding job at the Valley initially and thrives when circumstances dictate his side to be the underdog.
This season, the big investment that came late in the summer transfer window following Thomas Sandgaard’s takeover meant Charlton were a team expected to deliver, rather than one battling against the odds.
Bowyer was criticized for picking Ben Watson and Darren Pratley, two players who do similar jobs to one another, simultaneously, which is something that changed in Johnnie Jackson’s first game in caretaker charge.
In fact, neither Watson nor Pratley featured as technician Jake Forster-Caskey anchored an attacking diamond, as the Addicks clawed back a two-goal deficit against Bristol Rovers in midweek to record a 3-2 victory, thanks to Conor Washington’s winner.
That goal came after Diallang Jaiyesimi and Chuks Aneke had entered the fray, with the duo likely to replace Liam Millar and Jayden Stockley respectively in the next XI.
Millar, though very gifted, can at times take too long to release the ball and Stockley, despite being aerially accomplished, can slow the game down at times whereas Jaiyesimi and Aneke’s involvement helps the Londoners play quick, one-touch football.
Aneke also averages 4.5 shots per game when he starts, which is more than any other forward who has made more than one League One line-up this season – and he is Charlton’s top goalscorer with 12.
If the former Arsenal man starts as expected at New Plough Lane, he should get a feast of chances against relegation strugglers AFC Wimbledon, as Nigel Adkins watches on as Charlton boss for the first time.
Wow, wow, wow!
Those three points feel special, Johnnie Jackson's first game in a manager capacity.
From player to skipper, to coach & assistant manager, to manager
2-0 down, come back to win! A statement from the players for JJ
— VFF (@ValleyFloydFred) March 16, 2021
I’m expecting Chuks Aneke to come into Charlton’s XI here and, with Johnnie Jackson inclined to pick attacking sides, I think he’s got a great chance of getting among the goals.Gabriel Sutton
Bolton to win 1-0
Bolton Wanderers v Walsall
Walsall chairman Leigh Pomlett issued a 25-minute update on Monday, giving fans more information on the direction of the club.
Pomlett declared his support for Brian Dutton, whom he believes has the potential to be a great coach but started his reign seven games without a win, a run extended to eight after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at Crawley – but on the proviso that he starts to deliver results in the next fortnight.
The owner also highlighted his intentions to bring in a Director of Football, which is something the club has been crying out for over the last half-decade.
Dutton is only 35 and his career as a number one is in its infancy, so he needs somebody at the club with footballing experience in the game to give him some guidance and at the moment, he has not got that – his assistant is Mat Sadler, who started on Tuesday.
Dutton was happy with the battling qualities his side showed in Sussex and felt they were “let down” by officiating, with a controversial 97th minute penalty awarded against Liam Roberts.
Bolton, by contrast, were boosted by events in midweek with promotion rivals Cheltenham, Newport, Salford, Carlisle and Tranmere all failing to win, giving the side that were 17th less than two months ago an improved chance of pushing for automatic promotion.
The Trotters won 1-0 at Port Vale last time out thanks to a well-worked goal from Gethin Jones following some good work from Oladapo Afolayan, but it was an otherwise quiet game in which Ian Evatt’s troops mustered just three shots, two of which were on target.
Really appreciate the communication from Leigh Pomlett. Whether we like it or not, agree or disagree, it was clear and honest. Imagine Jeff and Roy doing that. Some really interesting points on finance, Dutton and the DoF is long overdue. We’re all due a bit of luck btw.
— Darren Fellows (@dazfellows) March 15, 2021
Four of Bolton’s last nine games have been 1-0 wins. I’m happy to back a repeat of that against a Walsall side that have lost by that same scoreline three times in their previous six encounters.Gabriel Sutton
Devante Rodney to score anytime
Colchester United v Port Vale
Darrell Clarke had been critical of his players during the seven-game winless run with which he started his reign as Port Vale boss, so he was quick to credit them after the first victory – a 2-1 triumph over Newport.
The intensity the Valiants produced in the first half hour of that match was exactly what the former Walsall boss wanted, besides more luck on the injury front.
David Worrall had spent a few games on the sidelines but the creative maestro was the game’s stand-out performer in midweek, setting up both goals to become the division’s top assister.
Worrall squared for Tom Conlon’s opener before putting in a similarly low ball that led to Devante Rodney’s tap-in.
Rodney has been described by Clarke as “a lovely kid, well-mannered” but he wants to “get him angry, because when he’s angry he plays really well”.
The former Stockport striker has all the attributes – pace, power and flashes of ability – to become unplayable at this level, but he just needs to get in the right zone to become a goalscoring monster and Clarke might have the motivational qualities to help him do that.
A first goal in nine was a big step forward for the 22-year-old, who looks well set to finish the season in good form for the Burslem outfit, who themselves took a big step towards beating the drop.
Colchester, meanwhile, have failed to score in their last four games and have won only one in their previous 19, leaving Wayne Brown’s side eight points above the relegation zone.
devante rodney you beautiful, beautiful man
— mais≅ (@pvfc_maisie) March 16, 2021
After bagging the winner on Tuesday, I fancy Devante Rodney to find a hot run of form and get on the scoresheet against out-of-form Colchester.Gabriel Sutton